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County Commission denies farm worker housing project for Pine Island

By Staff | Mar 19, 2009

An attempt to build housing for farm workers on Pine Island was unanimously denied by Lee County commissioners Tuesday, following several hours of public comment.
The 9:30 a.m. public agenda item did not get under way until well after noon, carrying heavy public input and a sea of yellow shirts that represented, in part, a unified front by Pine Island residents against the housing project.
Words like “ghetto” and “slums” were thrown around when describing the proposed housing project, which would provide 64 three- and two-bedroom apartment homes for Pine Island-based farm workers.
The issue came before county commissioners following a recommendation by a special magistrate, which asked housing project developer TWI 75 LLC to adhere to 50 separate conditions in order to approve the project.
Matt Uhle, a lawyer representing TWI 75 LLC, told commissioners that the conditions addressed all issues of concern, and that if the request was rejected, the case would undoubtedly find its way to court.
“We are seeking to avoid litigation,” he said. “We have addressed all requests of the special magistrate.”
County commissioners were eventually swayed by the roughly 80 Pine Island residents in attendance, most of whom took turns at the podium, sharing their general dismay with the whole affair.
Pine Island resident Dr. Phillip Buchanan described the housing project as a “plantation,” while Bokeelia resident Jim Fors said the developer is trying exploit a housing loophole in the Pine Island and Lee County zoning codes.
Bob Long, who owns several properties on Pine Island, said residents are not opposed to farm workers living on Pine Island. He added that there are many affordable rentals on the island, negating the prospect of low-income housing.
“People on Pine Island support farm workers,” Long said. “We welcome them to this community.”
Though the commissioners’ decision has no baring on whether the case ends up before a judge, the decision does bring to close a matter that began in 2007 when county staff recommended allowing the project.
The staff approval was eventually denied by a hearing examiner, which brought the project before a special magistrate, finally placing it before commissioners Tuesday.
There is no word on when, or if, the matter will go before a judge.